Summer tanagers are medium-sized birds. They are larger than other tanagers. They are about 17 cm long and weigh 30 g. Males are bright rose or orange-red all year. They have red wings and tails and do not have a crest. Females have olive backs and orange-yellow bellies. They also have yellow edges on the feathers of their shoulders. Some females begin to look like males as they get older. Young summer tanagers look like adult females, but males often develop red patches during their first winter.
Summer tanagers breed throughout the eastern United States south of southern Pennsylvania and northern Illinois, in the southwestern United States and in northern Mexico. They winter from central Mexico through northern South America, as far south as Bolivia and Brazil (Robinson 1996).
Summer tanagers prefer to breed and spend the winter in open woodlands. In the eastern United States, summer tanagers inhabit open hardwood forests. In the western United States, they usually breed in riparian forests of cottonwoods and willows. They are also found in orchards, parks and roadside trees. In the winter, summer tanagers live in tropical forests of tall trees with an open canopy. They usually live at low elevations, but sometimes live as high as 1800 m above sea level.
Summer tanagers breed once per year. They are serially monogamous. This means that they stay with the same mate for a whole breeding season, but may have a different mate each year. Breeding pairs form soon after arriving on the breeding grounds in the spring, and split up after the young leave in late summer. Male summer tanagers arrive on the breeding grounds a few days before females arrive. They try to attract a female by singing and chasing her. They may also display before the female, carrying food items and hopping about.
Summer tanagers breed once per year in the spring and summer. They are serially monogamous. This means that they keep the same mate for a whole breeding season, but they may have a different mate each year. Male summer tanagers arrive in the spring a few days before females arrive. They try to attract a female mate by singing and chasing her.
After breeding pairs have formed, the female begins building a nest. The nest is made of dried plants and grasses. It is usually built on a branch 2.5 to 10.5 m above the ground. Summer tanagers in the western U.S. seem to build sturdier nests than the summer tanagers in the eastern U.S.
The female begins laying eggs soon after she completes the nest. She lays 3 to 4 eggs that are smooth, glossy, and pale blue or pale green with reddish-brown spots. She incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days. During the incubation, the male spends a lot of time resting and caring for his feathers. Some males may bring food to the female while she is incubating.
Both parents feed the chicks after they hatch. The parents give the chicks whole pieces of food, but they may regurgitate food for very young chicks. After 8 to 10 days, the chicks begin to leave the nest. By the time they are 10 days old, the chicks can make short flights. The parents continue to feed the chicks for 2 to 4 weeks after they leave the nest. The chicks will be able to breed the next summer.
The female lays 3 to 4 eggs, which she incubates for 12 to 13 days. During this time, the male may feed her. The chicks are altricial when they hatch, and must be brooded by the female for the first 4 days. Both parents feed the chicks for 8 to 10 days, while they are still in the nest. After they leave the nest, the parents continue to feed the chicks for 2 to 4 weeks. Both parents also keep the nest clean by removing the fecal sacs of the chicks.
The oldest wild summer tanager lived at least 5 years.
Summer tanagers are usually solitary birds. Male summer tanagers defend their nest site and a feeding territory during the breeding season. After arriving on the breeding grounds, males compete for a territory. They defend their territory by singing and chasing other males. If a male hears the song of another male within his territory, he searches for the other male and chases him away.
Summer tanager pairs are usually hidden in the treetops, and are difficult to see. However, they are easy to hear. The song of the male is rich and musical, and easy to identify. The male sings all day during the breeding season, especially while he is trying to attract a female or establish a territory. Some females sing a garbled version of the males’ song. Both the male and the female give a loud, clicking call in many different situations.
Summer tanagers migrate at night. They also usually sleep at night, though they sometimes take brief naps during the day. Their flight is swift and direct. Summer tanagers often sit still on a perch, and then move in sudden bursts. They preen often, and occasionally sunbathe.
There is no data available on the home range of summer tanagers. Territory sizes have not been well-studied, but one study found territory sizes of 90,000 to 110,000 square meters (Robinson 1996).
Summer tanagers communicate using songs, calls and physical displays. Male summer tanagers defend their territory by singing and chasing rival males. They also often counter-sing (respond to other males by singing) at the beginning of the breeding season. Males attract female mates by singing and chasing the females. Summer tanagers have a musical song that is different from the buzzy songs of other tanagers. They also use several call notes to communicate.
Summer tanagers mostly eat insects. They eat many different kinds of insects, including beetles, dragonflies, grubs, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars, weevils and spiders. They also eat fruits, especially in winter and during migration. Blackberries, whortleberries, mulberries, pokeweed, citrus and bananas are some of the fruits they eat.
The most common foods that summer tanagers eat are bees and wasps. The tanagers attack wasp nests over and over until the wasps leave the nest. Once the adult wasps leave, the tanager can eat the larvae inside the nest.
Summer tanagers usually look for food in the tree tops, where they can catch bees as they are flying. After a summer tanager catches an insect, it takes the insect to a perch and beats it against the perch to kill the insect. It also wipes the insect on a branch to remove the stingers and other hard body parts.
Summer tanagers probably get enough water from the foods that they eat. They do not need to drink water.
Summer tanagers are probably killed by hawks, such as Cooper’s hawks. Their eggs and nestlings are probably taken by larger birds, such as blue jays, and climbing mammals such as raccoons and squirrels. Snakes, such as black rat snakes probably also eat summer tanager eggs and chicks. When predators come near a nest, summer tanagers mob them by diving at them and calling over and over.
Summer tanagers affect the populations of the insects they eat. They also spread the seeds of the plants whose fruits they eat. They also host at least three parasites, one lice species and two species of mites.
There are no known adverse affects of summer tanagers on humans.
Summer tanagers eat insect species that some people consider to be pests, such as bees and wasps.
Summer tanagers are not endangered or threatened. Their population size has remained steady in the United States. The biggest threat to summer tanager populations is destruction of their forest habitat. However, many summer tanagers are also killed each year when they crash into television towers during migration.
Summer tanagers are also known as beebirds, calico warblers, and crimson tanagers.
Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Alicia Ivory (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Isler, M.L. and P.R. Isler. The Tanagers: Natural History, Distribution and Identification. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1987.
Robinson, W.D. 1996. Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra). In The Birds of North America, No. 248 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Terres, J. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980.